Imminent exams, an end to a period of ceaseless activity, and, for many of us, the rapidly approaching journey home: It is a season punctuated not only with short days that seem to invite sleep at 5 pm, but also with a flurry of wildly contradictory emotions. This holiday, in particular, will be one of overdue reunions and new traditions, but nevertheless, the coming weeks are bound to carry with them as much nostalgia and trepidation as celebratory delight. Beneath the lights, feelings of absence, loss, nostalgia, and contentment are all enhanced. In pursuit of a soundtrack for the dark days, my collection of winter-appropriate mu- sic has progressively grown. Read on for a holiday playlist with a little bit of Christmas, a good deal of cosiness, and a touch of the melancholic.
‘Urge For Going,’ ‘River,’ ‘Come in from the Cold’—Joni Mitchell While “River” has come to be something of a staple in the canon of lyrical and down-tempo Christmas music, I am of the opinion that Joni Mitchell’s entire discography is highly compatible with this time of year. This is not to mention that Hits, an album compiled retrospectively, is among my most frequently revisited musical travel companions. Unlike some of my other suggestions, Hits is often explicitly joyful while also being characteristically poetic and conducive to movement. If you’re looking to dip your toe into Mitchell’s oeuvre on the train home or dive in whilst gazing pensively out the car window, begin with “Urge For Going” or “Come in from the Cold.”
‘If We Make It Through December’— Phoebe Bridgers: Phoebe Bridgers doesn’t exactly spring to mind as a harbinger of the festive. Yet while we now find ourselves a year on from Phoebe Bridgers’ release of four startlingly tragic, decidedly lovely Christmas songs, they still feel particularly appropriate when the wintertime blues set in. The first song, from which the EP gets its name, is “If We Make It Through December.” Bridgers’ cover of Merle Haggard’s 1974 country song is strikingly stark; in lieu of Haggard’s folksy instrumentals, she features only near-whisper vocals and a piano’s subtle trill. His poignant lyrics, while hopeful, highlight the contradictory nature of the season, which hails from feelings of uncertainty seemingly incompatible with expectations of joy. “I don’t mean to hate December,” he writes. “It’s meant to be the happy time of year.” “7 O’Clock News/ Silent Night” also takes inspiration from an earlier classic, drawing on Simon & Garfunkel’s concept that layers, un- surprisingly, the evening news over the familiar hymn. The specific pieces of news included are, in turn, humorous, topical, and extraordinarily depressing. In its entirety, the song is a beautiful and satirical tragedy. “Christmas Song” and a rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” finish off this cheery collection.
‘Never Get To Heaven’—Flyte: Headed by Will Taylor, British band Flyte has been steadily gaining momentum in the last year, largely thanks to their second full-length album, This Is Really Going To Hurt. A similarly unconventional Christmas song, “Never Get To Heaven” is a delicately rendered single that Taylor wrote in his early teens, returning to it in 2020 for this highly melodic, stripped- back recording. Fore- grounded by harmonies and exquisite acoustic instrumentals, “Never Get to Heaven” is the band at its best.
‘White Winter Hymnal’—Fleet Foxes Harkening back to the world of early 2000s indie-folk, “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes serves up a lush and all-encompassing soundscape, a chorus of voices and delight- fully inventive lyrics that evoke a multitude of season-appropriate images. Fleet Foxes are a choice for those days that require an added dose of comfort and warmth.
‘Creature Fear’—Bon Iver This same era gifted us Bon Iver’s 2008 album: For Emma, Forever Ago. I include this record, “Creature Fear” in particular, because to me, it is sentimentally equivalent to windy walks and premature sunsets. The listening experience creates space for contemplation and quiet, a moment of much-needed respite set against ghostly arrangements and Justin Vernon’s isolated voice.
Honourable mentions include “The Fairest Of The Seasons” and “These Days” (Nico), “Hazy Shade of Winter” (Simon and Garfunkel), “Milk and Honey” (Nick Drake), “Moon Barks At The Dog” (Saintseneca), “Christmas Time Is Here” (Vince Guaraldi), and “Lullaby” (Emit Rhodes).